How to Avoid Costly Vet Bills

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By Morieka Johnson, Mother Nature Network

Q: My dog ate a shoelace and it cost us a lot of money to have it surgically removed. We leave plenty of chew toys around but he always goes for the bad stuff. How do we keep everything out of his reach?

A: Lulu prefers to destroy shoes, so I always make sure to restrict access to my closets. But some dogs and cats have a knack for finding and consuming other items, in spite of our best efforts to deter that behavior. When those things get stuck, pets often need a trip to the vet for emergency removal. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), more than 5,000 pets received treatment at their Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York.

Many of the cases resulted in costly treatment for preventable conditions. Their top five are dental disease, urinary tract disease, pyometra, foreign body ingestion and high-rise syndrome, with veterinary bills ranging from $400 to more than $3,000. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

1. Dental disease (Estimated cost: $400 to $1,000)
"Picture what would happen if you literally never brushed your teeth," says Dr. Louise Murray, vice president of the Bergh animal hospital. "With proper dental care, dental treatments are shorter, less complicated, less invasive and less uncomfortable for your pet."

Set a goal of brushing your pet's teeth at least three times a week, which can extend the periods between veterinary dental procedures. Finger toothbrushes make quick work of the task, but Murray says wet gauze wrapped around your finger will do the trick. Rub the outside surfaces and avoid human toothpaste, which is toxic to pets. Check out my previous column for more dental care advice, and don't miss this video on what happens during veterinary dental procedures. It will make you want to grab a toothbrush, fast.

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Chew toys also can help promote good dental health and prevent destructive behavior. ASPCA dog trainer Kristen Collins recommends investing in a variety of chew toys - ranging from hard to soft - to keep pets entertained.

"Supervise your dog really closely the first few times that she is chewing anything," she warns. Broken pieces can present a choking hazard. "If you have a power chewer, make sure those 'indestructible' toys are really indestructible."

Some pet toys, such as the Kong line, contain hollow centers that can be filled with peanut butter or other treats that may prove more enticing than your shoes. As pets age, their teeth can become more brittle, so consider softer gear. Planet Dog has a line of "Toys for Old Souls," and SmartBones digestible chew toys are made from dried chicken breast, an alternative to rawhide.

2. Urinary tract disease/obstruction (Estimated cost = $1,500+)
Feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) typically leads to inappropriate urination outside a cat's litter box. According to Murray, this common condition affects male and female cats and can be avoided by increasing their water intake.

"Cats evolved in the desert; their ancestors developed to produce a very concentrated urine," she says. "Cats' prey in the wild was 80 percent liquid. We give dry food and the urine becomes incredibly concentrated. Tons of studies show more liquid in diet can help."

Canned food, pouches or homemade moist diets contain more water than dry kibble. If your cat is finicky about food, start by adding a tablespoon of water to her kibble and increase the amount over time. Patience is key.

Murray notes that it can take months for cats to adjust to the change. During the transition, Collins recommends water fountains for dehydrated pets. "A lot of cats will consume water if they can play with it," she says. Murray adds that stress can trigger FLUTD, so stock up on interactive toys, scratching posts and window perches to keep cats busy.

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3. Pyometra (Estimated cost: $2,000)
Chronic exposure to hormones can cause female cats and dogs to develop cystic endometrial hyperplasia (CEH), thickening of the uterine tissue. This condition can predispose the animal to pyometra, a bacterial infection within the uterus. Emergency surgery is costly, and Murray notes that both medical conditions are 100 preventable.

"Spay your pet," she warns. "Don't wait for this to happen. Instead of a spay that costs $200 or $300, now you have $2,000 ICU emergency bill."

4. GI foreign body (Estimated cost: $2,000)
While pets can ingest anything, Murray says that stringy items such as dental floss, ribbons and shoestrings can be particularly harmful for cats and dogs. Once ingested, these objects can become entangled and actually rip an animal's intestines. Keep these dangerous items out of reach. Pet toys that become damaged can present hazards as well. Avoid toys that are small enough for pets to swallow, and remove toys that become torn or broken. Bones are strictly off limits.

Related: The dog that 100 rocks and other tales of odd edibles

"Do not give them bones, period, end of story," Murray says. "I can't tell you how many bones I've taken out with the endoscope or doctors have taken out surgically. Anything that's super hard will break their teeth."

Collins likes teaching dogs the "drop it" command to help people and pets avoid potentially dangerous items. If your dog has something it its mouth, say "drop it" and show a high-value treat. As soon as your dog drops the item, offer praise and give the treat. Repeat this step a few times and then move on to the next stage of saying the command without showing the treat each time.

"Train them well and you can use 'drop it' with various items," she says. "I used to live in Manhattan and used to walk dogs for friends and neighbors; 'drop it' is the best cue you can have. It can save their lives." Of course, cats don't respond well to bribery, so Collins says to be vigilant about keeping their environment safe. Remove items they are likely to find chew-worthy and stock up on cat grass or other alternatives. Since boredom can lead to destructive behavior, interactive toys help in this area as well.

5. High-rise syndrome (Estimated cost: $1,500 to $3,000)
Tall buildings and curious cats can be a dangerous combination. Each year, Bergh animal hospital treats quite a few ruptured lungs and broken limbs that result from cats falling from tall buildings. Make sure windows are tightly framed and avoid letting cats free on the balcony.

"People think cats have good instincts and won't jump or fall from the balcony," Murray says. "A cat has no way to know how high they are. They came up in an elevator."

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How to avoid costly vet bills
How to avoid costly vet bills